Herriman • Atlanta United made history last season, winning the Major League Soccer title in just its second year as a franchise. Josef Martinez broke the single-season goals record and was named the MVP of the regular season, All-Star Game and MLS Cup. Gerardo "Tata" Martino won Coach of the Year.
But Martino left to coach the Mexican national team, paving the way for Frank de Boer. Star playmaker Miguel Almiron was sold to Newcastle United and was replaced by star Argentinian midfielder Pity Martinez. And Atlanta’s success meant it would effectively start its season in February by qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League.
All those changes translated to a difficult start to 2019 for Atlanta. It lost three of its first six MLS contests while also playing midweek CONCACAF games. United’s start had some wondering what was wrong with the defending champions.
But Atlanta has since played championship level soccer. It’s gone from the bottom of the Eastern Conference table to fourth and just came off a five-game winning streak during which it didn’t allow a single goal. Real Salt Lake players and coaches know they will have their hands full Friday despite its current two-game winning streak.
“A team that poses a lot of challenges with the quality that they have,” coach Mike Petke said this week. “It is a bit of a new system compared to last year, but it’s, to us, more organized defensively and explosive in transition. Yeah, I’d say it’s our most difficult game.”
Atlanta leads the league in possession percentage at 56.7%, per whoscored.com. It’s also tied with Los Angeles Football Club in least goals allowed with only nine.
RSL, meanwhile, has scored six goals in its last two games and is on something of an uptick as well. Real have won four of their last six games and currently sit just above the playoff line in the Western Conference.
Petke said RSL’s passing will be one of the main factors in figuring out how to break through Atlanta’s compact defense.
“Our possession is the starting point,” Petke said. “But our ability to shift them and find gaps and, at times, be more intelligent with maybe … even sitting off a little bit to allow them to come out and allow them to open up a little bit. All these little game plans that we’re talking about [to] figuring out how break down a team that’s going to come in and have possession and then get organized defensively and make it difficult for us.”
While Salt Lake is a team that also likes to keep possession, it has only kept 47.2%, fifth-lowest in the league. Defender Justen Glad said the team’s movement and calmness on the ball can help it win the possession game against Atlanta.
“There were spurts last game where we were very good on the ball and we got out of tight situations just off of player movement and taking quality touches,” Glad said. “If we can do that again then we’ll be in good shape.”
Asked what makes playing Atlanta so difficult, forward Sebastian Saucedo pointed to its pinpoint possession prowess. But he added the caveat that playing every team is the league is a challenge in itself.
“Obviously they have special players but so do we,” said Saucedo, who scored his first goal of the season against Toronto FC last weekend. “At the end of the day … we’re playing against 11 players on the field. We just have to take advantage.”
Although Atlanta has scored only eight goals in its last six games, Petke said it’s still “one of the best attacking teams in the league.” And while RSL is still searching for consistency throughout a full 90-minute game, Glad thinks his team is inching closer toward that.
“They’re [Atlanta] obviously doing well right now,” Glad said. “But I think we’re in that same boat where we’re kind of hitting our stride and figuring out what we want to do on the soccer field and actually going out and doing it. So it should be a good game.”
REAL SALT LAKE VS. ATLANTA UNITED
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
Kickoff » Friday 7 p.m. MDT
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Last meeting » Atlanta 2, RSL 0 (Sept. 22, 2018, Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
Records » RSL 5-6-1, Atlanta 6-4-2
About Atlanta » Won five of last six games. … Went five consecutive games, all wins, not allowing a goal. … Hector Villalba considered “very doubtful” to play. … Four players are on the USMNT’s provisional roster for the Gold Cup. … Team has played 16 games in 12 and a half weeks due to CONCACAF Champions League play.
About RSL » Sam Johnson has four goals in only 11 shots. … Team has goal differential of minus-2 through 12 games. … Kyle Beckerman was back on the training field after suffering a hamstring injury three weeks ago. … Has won two consecutive games and scored six total goals in that span.